John Wooden


My old Delaware chum John McCarthy wrote elegantly about the passing of John Wooden on his blog. I thought it’d be good to run his take here …

In the coming hours, days and weeks, media in many forms from throughout the country and the world will provide commentary on Coach John Wooden.  Tonight, in the quiet of my home, I wanted to spend some time thinking, typing and reflecting on my thoughts on Coach.

As many of you are aware, Coach passed away a little over an hour ago as I begin to type my thoughts.  He was 99 and his 100th was to be on October 14.

Here are my thoughts and ramblings about Coach:

You know, the mainstream media is going to talk about his days at UCLA, his 10 National Championships (including seven in a row), his 88-game winning streak, his 38-game NCAA Tournament winning streak, his incredible winning percentage, etc.  They will talk about the awards, from his Presidential Medal of Freedom to his induction as a player and coach into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame and his induction into the Inaugural Class of the College Basketball Hall of Fame.  We will be reminded that he was named ESPN’s Coach of the Century.  We will see quotes from prominent people and we will read about Bill Walton, Lew Alcindor, Jamal Wilkes, etc.  We will be reminded of the world famous Pyramid of Success and we will see so many of his famous quotes and we will be reminded of the lessons that he learned from his father.

Coach Wooden is, without much question, the most decorated and universally respected Coach of any sport of all time in American culture.

But I don’t write this to rehash his records, his awards and his accomplishments as a Coach.  Those are well documented – and well deserved.  I write this to tell my thoughts and my experiences with Coach and his family.  The records, the numbers and the awards tell of his accomplishments, BUT they do not tell of the man.

The first time I met Coach Wooden was in October of 2007.  A wonderful lady by the name of Sophia owns a restaurant close to his condo in Encino called The Village Inn.  She was kind enough to open the restaurant so that we could talk (it was closed at the time, yet this is often where Coach met people).  I had coached collegiately for eight years, and been involved in collegiate athletics for about 14 years at the time we met.  I was 37, and it was the month of his 97th birthday.  I remember arriving in the Los Angeles area the night before, and I had a hard time sleeping.  I was like a kid on Christmas Eve.  The next morning, I was going to sit down and talk with Coach John Wooden.  THE Coach Wooden.

I was there to talk about his coaching days at Indiana State, and in particular to talk with him about Clarence Walker.  It’s still amazing to me that the Clarence Walker story hasn’t been nearly as well documented as so many of his other accomplishments, yet Steve Jamison (who has written multiple books with Coach) calls this story the single greatest story/accomplishment in Coach Wooden’s coaching career.  Without spending chapters and chapters on this story, Coach Wooden, as the Coach and Athletic Director of the 1946-47 Indiana State Teacher’s College, turned down the opportunity to play in the NAIB (now the NAIA) National Tournament because Clarence Walker, who was black, would not be permitted to play.  This was Coach’s first year as a collegiate Head Coach and he turned down the opportunity to compete in the nation’s most prestigious National Championship because a black player – who, by the way, was a freshman, did not start, and played sparingly – was not going to be able to play.  Flat out turned it down on principal, although the opportunity would have been a huge boost for his personal career.

The following year, the same scenario presented itself and Coach turned it down again.  Eventually, Coach received a call back, telling him that Clarence would be provided the opportunity to play, BUT he could not eat with the team, stay with the team or be seen in public with the team.  Coach thought that this was embarrassing and humiliating, and turned the invitation down again.  Eventually, the NAACP got involved and Coach Wooden suggested that Clarence talk to his parents to get their thoughts.  In short, Clarence Walker decided to play.  Although the surrounding circumstances would be embarrassing, the Walkers – and the NAACP – thought that they could play a key role in breaking down a major racial barrier in our society.  And thus, under Coach Wooden’s leadership, Clarence Walker came off the bench and stepped onto the court on March 7, 1948 at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City and helped break down another key barrier in American society.

As an additional couple of notes about this story, Indiana State ended up making it all the way to the National Championship game that season, falling to Louisville, 82-70.  After that season, Coach Wooden took the Head Coaching position at UCLA.  Two years later, as a senior, Clarence Walker’s Indiana State Teacher’s College won the NAIB National Championship.

I was there to listen to Coach Wooden tell this story, and his memory was incredible.  I was really impressed when he talked about the ride from Terre Haute to Kansas City, and about where they stopped for a meal – in 1948!

After we were done talking and filming, he asked if I would take his sportsmanship pledge.  After I (obviously) said that I would, he told me to put my hand over my heart and repeat after him.  I repeated his lines, which of course he had memorized.  He then pulled out a little laminated card with this pledge and said that he was going to sign it and I should sign it.  I still have that little card, yet I managed to smudge his signature pretty good (although I’m much more excited about the experience than I am about someone signing a piece of paper).

Clarence Walker passed away in the late 1980’s, yet we flew much of his family to the NAIA Tip Off Banquet to celebrate the 60th anniversary of this historic occasion in March of 2008.

As a quick note about Sophia, the restaurant owner.  First, she was/is a wonderfully hospitable lady.  I got to her restaurant a bit early, so we had the chance to chat for a little bit.  She had owned the restaurant for about 10 years at the time.  When she bought the restaurant, she knew very little about sports and knew nothing about Coach Wooden – not even his name.  Nothing.  Coach had been coming to the restaurant for quite some time and Coach’s daughter, Nan, called for his table, and Sophia was quite confused about a table for someone they called “Coach” – Coach Wooden?  She had no idea.  To fast forward, today Sophia calls him the “Messiah” and has the Coach Wooden room in the Village Inn.  She absolutely adores the man.  When he’s not feeling well, she takes soup to his condo.  I really appreciated her personal story because her complete admiration for Coach had absolutely nothing to do with his accomplishments as a Coach.  She knew nothing about his awards, National Championships, etc., yet she calls him the “Messiah”.  I remember her calling him “an American treasure”.

The second time that I went to visit Coach, I went with the President of the NAIA, Jim Carr.  We were going to induct him into the NAIA Hall of Fame.  After I returned from handling the Clarence Walker story, it was brought to my attention that Coach Wooden was not in our Hall of Fame.  While I’m not sure how that slipped through the cracks for, oh, about 60 years, I was asked if I wanted to handle this matter.  I was really fortunate once again.  I personally nominated Coach Wooden for the Hall of Fame, gathered the letters of recommendation and moved the process along.  It was now February of 2009, and Coach was 98 years old and not travelling, so we brought the award to him and had a film crew there to film our presentation.  This time we went to his condo.

I remember these times quite well, and a few things really stood out to me.

His condo was cluttered with “stuff” everywhere.  There wasn’t much table space that wasn’t covered with something.  There were stacks on top of the bookcase and loads of “stuff” just leaning against the walls.  This was a fairly small, very normal condo that a typical older gentleman would live in, BUT this was Coach Wooden, and American icon.  A legend.  Here he was, living in a normal, cluttered little condo in a very average condo development that had been around for quite some time.  As I was looking around before we filmed – and on my way home – I really thought about this situation.  I looked closer at the “stuff”.  Primarily, it was pictures of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.  There were pictures of friends and players that had played for him.  Then, as you dug deeper, behind these pictures, you would find the medal given from his induction into the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame.  Hanging by his coat on the coat rack was the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  Sitting on the floor, leaning against the wall was a picture and note from Mother Theresa.  It hit me.  His priorities.  It was his family.  It was his faith.  It wasn’t money.  It wasn’t fame.  It wasn’t a big house or awards.  So many people talk about priorities.  Coach Wooden lived them.

The other thing that stuck out to me about this trip was this: We got to the LA area the evening before we were going to meet with Coach.  While at a game that evening, I got a message from Nan (his daughter) that let me know that Coach had just come from the doctor’s and that he had pneumonia.  She apologized, as she knew that we had just flown from Kansas City to visit with him, but she said that she would call in the morning after she spoke with him.  She mentioned that the doctor’s wanted to have him check into the hospital, but he insisted on going home.  She called the next morning, and said that “Daddy” had gotten a good night’s sleep and wanted us to come over.  I knew that we would want to be very respectful of his time, as he was obviously quite sick.

That morning, I expressed our gratitude and let him know that we would be respectful of his time and wanted to let him get back to bed and to rest.  He was great.  He was really good on film and he was probably better after we were done.  As we went to leave, he started telling more stories, and we sat back down.  As he appeared to finish a few stories, I thanked him again and tried to be respectful and be on our way.  Again, he began to tell more stories.  It was awesome.

Here’s what stuck with me: Coach was 98 years old and had pneumonia.  I think that he saw this as another opportunity to teach.  He recited, again from memorization, one of his favorites, “Why I Teach”, and I think that he saw this as another opportunity to teach more student-athletes.  He knew that we would show this to many people, and this was another chance to positively affect young people.  Amazing.  98 years old with pneumonia and he did this for the student-athletes.  A few days after we left, I read in the paper that Coach Wooden checked into the hospital with a severe case of pneumonia.  He was there for approximately two weeks.

As I walked out, I peeked into his room where he was relaxing, and said goodbye.  I remember thinking that this may very well be the last time I would see Coach Wooden.  As it turns out, it was.  I don’t think that I will ever forget those trips, and the last time I saw Coach.

Soon after our trip, I had the honor of standing on stage to introduce Coach Wooden into the NAIA Hall of Fame.  Coach, by your definition, I think it was a success, as I really gave it my best for you.  I hope my passion and sincerity came across, as this was truly a special moment for me.  What an honor, to stand there to introduce an American icon.

I spoke with his daughter, Nan, a few weeks ago.  At the time, he wasn’t eating and wasn’t doing well.  We talked about her health (she’s in her 70’s, her husband has since passed away and she has several replacements and recently broke her arm), and her Dad’s health.  We talked about her Mom (Coach’s deceased wife, Nellie) and we talked about Sophia (the owner of the Village Inn).

Nan thought that there were just about two things that kept Coach going at this point in his life:  1) In August, Coach was about to welcome his first great, great grandchild, and  2) In October, he was going to turn 100 years old.  Other than this, his body was beginning to fail him.  He was 99 years old and confined to a wheelchair and bed.  He was no longer able to walk, and he consistenty needed oxygen.  He has had 24-hour-a-day assistance for quite some time.

Coach wasn’t afraid of death and he openly talked about death.  Recently, he was asked what he was hoping to hear when he got to the Pearly Gates, and he responded, “Well done.”

Nan told me a story that she was just discussing with Sophia.  Nellie, his wife, was known around the family as being almost fanatically neat and clean.  The joke was that, if Coach got up to go to the bathroom during the night, Nellie would have the bed made by the time that he got back.  Nellie passed away in 1985, and Coach’s incredible love – still to this day – for Nellie is well documented.  He still writes a letter on the 21st of each month (she died on the 21st of March) to her, seals it in a envelope, and places it under a yellow ribbon.  He still sleeps on his side of the bed.  He’s been ready for quite some time to be with Nellie again.  He’s been ready to die and he misses her so.  When he’s mentioned this around Sophia and Nan, they’ve continued to tell him that Nellie doesn’t have the house quite ready yet.  It’s not in order for him just yet.

Well, Coach, I say “Well Done”, and I believe that Nellie just finished preparing the house for her beloved husband.  Welcome Home.

The world just lost one of our finest, and Coach just went home to be with the love of his life, Nellie.

The world will talk about the records, the awards and the numbers.  I will remember my time with Coach.  I have been blessed to have had these opportunities.  God bless you, Coach John R. Wooden.

3 thoughts on “John Wooden”

  1. Maybe I am just wacked out, but Wooden always seemed elegant to me.
    A true gentleman, and wiser than most he certainly has influenced many, even outside of BB.

  2. I’d never heard of John Wooden before and was completely moved by this story. Thank you for writing it and focusing in on what he was all about. I wish I could have met this American Treasure!

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